HER NAME is Ann Kurz, but everyone calls her "Krash" a reference to her habit of speeding around the campus of Washington's Trinity College. Its not a 280-Z she drives; its a wheelchair. An electric wheelchair with Day-Glo strips on the back.
"When I first got it . . . I didn't know how to drive it. I hit a lot of walls," she says. Her speech is distorted and painfully slow. Her left arm is curled, resting in her lap. Because of an accident at birth--not getting enough oxygen, according to the doctors--Ann Kurz has cerebral palsy. But the severe handicap hasn't stopped her. She made the Dean's List every semester but one, and has a grade point average of 3.8. She made Phi Beta Kappa her junior year. She is a sociology major, a Spanish minor, a whiz on the computer and a woman who will graduate today near the top of her class, despite the fact that it takes her one hour to type one page of a term paper, using the eraser end of a pencil to hit the keys. Despite the fact that she can't dress herself or feed herself or drag her legs up and down the dormitory corridors using a walker without falling once or twice a week.
"I've . . . learned how to . . . fall," she says, with a smile. She is 21, has brown curly hair, a Creamsicle complexion and an infectious laugh. Her sense of humor is well known around campus, as is her determination to fit into a society run by and for the able-bodied.
Cerebral palsy is a group of disabling conditions resulting from damage to the central nervous system. The disability, which is not usually hereditary or fatal, can range from severe loss of motor control to a slight speech impairment. It affects about 700,000 Americans, one third of whom are under the age of 21. Each year, approximately 10,000 babies are born with central nervous system disorders resulting in CP.
Ann Kurz, like many CP victims, leads an active life. Twenty years ago, she would likely have been institutionalized, labeled as mentally retarded, sentenced to a mindless life in a whitewashed dayroom somewhere. Today, she is receiving a college diploma. She wants to go to graduate school next year, but her family may not be able to afford it. And although it is not unusual for cerebral palsy victims to pursue a college education, it is rare for them to go away from home.
"I felt I was very dependent on my family," she says, choosing her words carefully. "I felt I wanted to be more . . . independent. I had to get far enough away so I couldn't call home and say, 'Come and get me.'
"I knew it would be good for me to get away," she says. "But my parents were scared."
Kurz grew up in Rochester, N.Y., the eldest daughter of a Kodak lab technician. She went to a special school until the seventh grade, when she was "mainstreamed" into a private Catholic school, later graduating from high school with honors. She scored 400 on verbal and 615 on math on her college boards. She was also manager of the girl's basketball and softball teams, a member of the chorus and an active member of the girls' athletic association.
Ann Kurz can't run. She can't catch a ball or slide into third. But as her mother says, "Ann never ran. So she never knew what she was missing."
She draws and writes poetry. Her favorite movie is "Tootsie," her favorite musician James Taylor, her favorite author Steinbeck. She went on a date recently. She said it "wasn't bad." When she dreams, she dreams of herself walking.
When Ann Kurz came to Trinity four years ago, she was the first severely handicapped student at the 86-year-old Catholic women's college. Her arrival coincided with a new federal law requiring accessibility to facilities for the handicapped. Until that time, Trinity had no ramps. There were no flat sections of the curbs to accommodate wheelchairs. There were only steps. And more steps. And curbs. And heavy doors that were impossible to open.
Now she rides across the blacktop parking lots and paths with ease, waving to friends. "Hey Krash! Howya doin'?" has become a familiar refrain. A year after she arrived, the school built a ramp to the library. More ramps were built. The maintenance department installed automatic doors that Kurz opens with a remote-control switch on her wheelchair. Her presence on campus has opened other doors as well.
As Anna Lynch, Kurz's adviser put it, "The students are seeing things they didn't see before."
"At first I was afraid. I thought she was fragile," says Maura Healey, a 19-year-old sophomore from Rhode Island who befriended Kurz last year and now serves as one of her "attendants." Healey gets paid $3.75 an hour to help dress and feed Kurz. The funds are provided by the New York State Office of Vocational Rehabilitation.
"I was really nervous at first," says Healey. "It's so easy doing things for yourself. You don't really give it a second thought. But when you're doing it for another person . . ."
Healey is sitting at a table in Trinity's cafeteria, holding a grilled cheese sandwich. Kurz is sitting next to her, in the wheelchair. Every few minutes, Healey raises the sandwich to Kurz's lips.
"I didn't know much about cerebral palsy," she says. "I was afraid to touch her."
Now, Healey feeds her, dresses her and on Saturday mornings helps her wash her hair in the dorm's showers.
"I was really surprised that you got paid for this," she says. "My original intention was just to do it as a friend."
Despite her upbeat image, Ann Kurz says she often gets depressed, an emotion she hides from her friends. "I pretend sometimes to be happy," she says.
"Whenever they see her, she's always laughing, always in a good mood," says Healey. "I don't think they realize that she has normal emotions like anyone else."
Maura Healey says Ann Kurz has taught her a lot. "Mostly," she says, wiping Kurz's mouth with a napkin, "it's taught me to be more understanding."
Stephanie Arnold, a 21-year-old senior who shared a room with Kurz last year, says, "She's definitely the best roommate I've ever had, and I've had seven."
Still, Arnold says, "We got into fights. I'd want to do something she wouldn't agree with. It was a typical roommate kind of thing."
The two decided to take single rooms this year, but have remained close friends. Arnold says rooming with Ann Kurz was "the best personal experience" she had in college. The only sad part, she says, was the reactions of others. "We'd meet new people together, and I'd notice they would be restrained around her. I'd think, 'Gosh, why can't people open up?' "
Tom Finch, deputy director of the Office of Technology, National Institute of Handicapped Research (a branch of the Department of Education), met Ann Kurz last year when the sociology major applied for an internship at his office. Trinity encourages the students to find work in their fields for short periods during the school year.
Ann Kurz worked with Finch for three weeks. He is amazed by her. "I've never seen her upset or frightened. "She's more involved than many of the people who are able-bodied. That's probably taken them by surprise."
Kurz recently served as co-chairman of a Cerebral Palsy Dance-a-Thon at the college, helped organize an art show featuring works by the handicapped and suggested a new academic course for the Spanish department that has been added to the curriculum. She also found time to serve on the board of the athletic association.
"There's nothing she won't try," says Finch. "And there's nothing that will keep her down."
Ann Kurz is on her way to a morning class. It's a sociology class called "Career Paths." The class is meeting in the library, where the students will videotape themselves in a mock job-interview situation. Kurz guides her wheelchair up the library ramp, then rides to the elevator. On the second floor, the class is gathered in a small room. One by one, they nervously sit before the camera, answering the questions of the mock interviewr. Ann Kurz anxiously looks over her notes, and laughs when one of the students flubs a line.
Then it's her turn. She is applying for a job as a computer systems programmer, a career she hopes to pursue. She speaks slowly, her mouth straining to form the words.
"I'm interested in designing programs for the physically handicapped. I'm interested in getting the handicapped more involved in society.
"I have the experience of what handicapped people are going through now. I have more insight."
She is asked whether her handicap hinders her communication with people.
"I have trouble communicating wherever I go. But I have learned to accept the fact that I will have trouble. I have to work at it."
Standing in the back of the room, 22-year-old classmate Layone McNeill watches the image of Kurz flicker on the television screen.
"Do you believe it?" she says, shaking her head. "She taught me how to use the computer."
Ann Kurz is relaxing in her dorm room. A hair dryer is lying on the desk. There are clothes strewn about, posters on the wall. One of them says, "Ambition Knows No Bounds."
There's another sign: "To All Attendants: Do Not Forget to Plug in the Wheelchair at Night." And another: "To Err is Human. To Really ---- Things Up Requires a Computer."
Ann Kurz laughs. Then she hands over a notebook in which she has been writing poems. Most of her poems and drawings she keeps at home in Rochester. "They're a secret part of me," she says shyly.
Ever since she can remember, Ann Kurz has wanted to get married and have children. She doesn't know if that will happen. She would marry a man with cerebral palsy, "if I loved him."
In her freshman year, Kurz wrote a paper for her sociology class. It was titled "Reactions Towards Me."
Kurz has classified people who come into contact with her. "The first category consists of people who stare at me as if I were some creature from outer space. For example, on my first day of my freshman year in high school, I was pushed into a class and everyone in the room became so silent that you could hear a pin drop a mile away. Then they let their mouths drop open and stared."
The next category is the "babyers . . . They pat my head or pinch my cheeks and say, 'Aren't you cute?' " The next is are "the listeners," people "who pretend to understand me. One example is my telling a nurse in a hospital that I had to go to the bathroom and her saying, 'Oh, that's nice,' and then walking away."
Others want to help her constantly, still others are "precautionists . . . terrified of either hurting me or of letting me get hurt. The 'avoiders' don't want to have anything to do with me. They are afraid of me; they don't want to face the fact that there are people who have handicaps. When these people see me coming down the hall, they either go into the nearest room and wait until I've passed, or they take another route . . ."
In the final category are those who treat Kurz as a "normal person. They accept me for who I am; they accept my handicap, but they don't put my handicap before my feelings."
Probably the most frustrating experience for Kurz, says her adviser, Anna Lynch, was the fact that she was the first handicapped student on campus. Trinity was not prepared, mentally or physically, for the challenge.
"I had to do some education of my colleagues, who said, 'Look, we're getting overburdened. Older women, younger women, ethnic groups. Are we now going to get severely handicapped students?' At first we tried to match Ann with faculty who would be receptive. After that, everybody knew her and accepted her."
Lynch said some of the teachers gave Kurz more time to finish exams, but that, generally, she was given no special consideration. To record classroom notes, Kurz would hand a classmate (one she felt was the best notetaker) a piece of carbon paper so she could have a copy.
Anna Lynch is very optimistic about Kurz's future, although she says, "The parents have made clear there's no money for graduate school."
Ann Kurz is the oldest of five children. Three of them are in college. Kay Kurz, Ann's mother, says they will have to wait and see about graduate school. In the meantime, Ann will go home for the summer. "She's going to be bored here, I know, " Kay Kurz says.
Says Tom Finch, "The future is an uphill climb for Ann. There's no question about that. But from her perspective, there's nothing she can't do."